With the latest report by ESPN FC that legendary Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard will sign an 18-month, prorated $6-million-per-year contract with the LA Galaxy this summer, it’s time to ponder just a bit how Gerrard will actually fit into a Galaxy squad which has just won MLS Cup 2014, its third in four years, and already boasts one of the league’s best midfield units.
The Galaxy — and any other MLS team who’d have taken a run at him — aren’t signing Gerrard for his status on Merseyside, which is unquestionably legendary. They’re splashing roughly $9 million in total for what they think he can provide on the field in 2015 and 2016; not two, three, five or ten years ago. Gerrard can’t justify a contract of that size by simply showing up from day one — though he’ll have actually outdone Frank Lampard by doing so — but by performing as a player inside the league’s top-five percentile, which is exactly how he’ll be paid.
First things first, it’s hardly an ideal fit. Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas were arguably the best central midfield pairing in MLS 2014. Given all the attacking talent that blew the rest of the league away (69 goals in 34 games), the Brazilian duo were the unsung heroes of this particular MLS Cup-winning team.
Juninho and Sarvas are tireless workers who cover every blade of grass from one endline to the other. They’re both equally capable pushing forward into the final third to play the final through ball to Robbie Keane or Gyasi Zardes, as they are dropping a bit deeper in midfield and soaking up pressure.
With all due respect to Gerrard, the player who’ll be 35 years old before he begins his MLS adventure isn’t capable of replicating what either one of Juninho or Sarvas provided in 2014. That means a change of formation will need to be made to accommodate the handful of things Gerrard still does well — mid-season, on a championship-winning team.
The most obvious option would be to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. And right off the bat we run into problem No. 1: Zardes is pushed back out wide where he struggled as a rookie in 2013, and more importantly, away from the center of the field where he starred (as much as a 23-year-old could in a team alongside Keane and Landon Donovan), bagging 16 goals in his sophomore season. Zardes will never replicate the service and dynamic runs that made Donovan a second-half-of-the-season MVP in 2014 (10 goals and 17 assists in his final 24 regular-season appearances, post-World Cup snub), meaning to get the most out of an undoubtedly bright, American player, he needs to play with a forward operating just underneath him.
The next problem in a 4-2-3-1 is this: Which of the three central midfield spots would Gerrard play? He’s a great long passer of the ball, but when it comes to the tight spaces in which he’ll likely be working as somewhat of a No. 10, does anyone really think he thrives in that situation? I don’t. Conversely, does he do enough defensive work (translation: have the legs left) to play deeper alongside one of the Brazilians? Stefan Ishizaki would be fine slotting in as the No. 10 (Keane could probably also do the job to keep Zardes central), but then you’re dropping half the midfield duo that won you an MLS Cup, based on nothing more than “We signed this expensive guy, so we have to play him.”
Basically, to fit Gerrard into the starting 11, Bruce Arena will have to either, 1) change the tactical formula with which he’s had more success than any other manager in MLS history, 2) move or drop a number of his best performers from the 2014 MLS Cup-winning team, or 3) all of the above.
Signing Gerrard is certainly a case of the Galaxy saying, “We’ll sign as many great players as we can, regardless of fit, and find a way to make it work.” And take solace in this, Galaxy fans: if there’s a coach in MLS who’s the right man to make this thing work, we all know it’s Bruce Arena.